News this morning that suspected al Qaeda operatives were arrested in Norway – yes, Norway, that picturesque, liberal-leaning, sleepy winter wonderland – highlights once again that while al Qaeda may be down, it is far from out.
This latest terrorism bust involves two arrests in Norway and one in Germany and is suspected of having links with other plots foiled in the UK and the US over the past year. While details are sketchy, it appears that all of those arrested were Norwegian residents and the plot, involving the detonation of homemade peroxide bombs against civilian targets, was at least partially organized by Salah al-Somali, "al Qaeda's former chief of external operations." Al-Somali was killed in a US drone strike in December 2009.
While this story is only just unfolding, three things are immediately evident.
First, al Qaeda continues to illustrate its tenacious resolve to find new and better ways to attack and kill westerners in Europe and North America. While 9/11 was conducted by non-westerners recruited and trained "over there" and shipped to North America to conduct their attacks, the big difference today is that al Qaeda is successfully recruiting westerners to do its dirty work. Al Qaeda's goal is to fuse autonomous, self-radicalized, homegrown terrorists with more established international networks active in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman has called homegrown, western recruits al Qaeda's "ultimate fifth columnists". These guys blend into the societies they plan to attack, have the proper paperwork to travel to and within their target states, and more easily evade western security officials. With a little direction, a spot of encouragement, and a pinch of financial and structural support, al Qaeda is able to turn a western radical's dream into an acute terrorist possibility. Those arrested today included a 39-year old Norwegian citizen of Uyghur origin (who immigrated to Norway over a decade ago), and two other men from Iraq and Uzbekistan with permanent residency permits.
Second, al Qaeda is primarily interested in the Big Bang. In plotting attacks against the West, it favors complex operations carried out simultaneously against a multitude of targets. Small scale and one-off attacks – like Major Nidal Hasan's shooting rampage at US Fort Hood, the knicker bombing attempt over the skies of Detroit, and Faisal Shahzad's car bombing attempt in New York City – are welcome, of course, but the organization has set its sights on more grandiose goals. It's the spectacular that counts most. On first read, the Norway bust was part of an international terrorist plot that would have included attacks on New York City subways (foiled last September), on shopping malls in Manchester, England (foiled last April), and undisclosed targets in Norway. Only yesterday, US officials formally announced that the UK and US plots were connected. According to Norwegian officials, international coverage of that announcement compelled them to make the arrests, fearing that the media exposure might have prompted their own suspects to destroy critical evidence. In sum, al Qaeda's ambition was wide-scale destruction of a desperate collection of targets spanning two continents.
Finally, that American, British, and Norwegian citizens are all involved in these plots is further evidence that al Qaeda's bloody message continues to resonate in the West. With nearly a dozen Canadian terrorists already sitting in jail and criminal charges expected against vile blogger Salman Hossain, it is clear that some Canadians support terrorist violence, too. All of this suggests that while today's arrests were made in Norway and Germany, tomorrow's arrests might well take place in Canada.